Outstanding Master's Universities and Colleges Professor of the Year National Winner
Donna C. Boyd
Professor of Anthropology
At a recent crime scene investigation, student members of my Radford University forensic anthropology team worked alongside me to recover the remains of a fire victim, sifting through piles of twisted metal, broken glass, and still-smoldering personal remnants of someone else's life. They were struck by the incongruity of the dismal setting compared to the safety and security of the classroom they had just left behind. "How did my study of forensic anthropology lead here?" they might well have pondered.
The English philosopher Francis Bacon observed in Meditationes Sacrae that "knowledge is power." The power of knowledge is most relevant when applied outside of the classroom. One of my first students, Eric Lassiter, now professor of humanities and anthropology at Marshall University, describes anthropology in his recent book, Invitation to Anthropology, as "powerfully relevant to our world today...[placing] a particular knowledge of human beings into the larger service of humankind." He writes that we "keep what we have by giving it away"-we nurture the knowledge and scholarship of our discipline within ourselves by giving it away to others.
My teaching philosophy has revolved around these ideas of relevancy and service. Because my research specialty, the scientific study of the human skeleton, offers a permanent record of the biological characteristics of an individual and the events preceding, during, and following his or her demise, my students and I have a unique responsibility to apply our knowledge toward resolving the mystery surrounding unexplained deaths.
In human osteology and forensic anthropology, I have trained students to do just this. Students engage in collaborative hands-on research on human bone to experience first-hand the relevancy of their studies. In my 16 years of teaching at Radford University, I have been most proud when my students have successfully accomplished this.
When law enforcement officials requested our team's assistance in retrieving the burned, fragmentary, and unrecognizable remains of the fire victim, her family faced a six-year wait to declare her dead, close the case, and settle the estate in the absence of identifiable remains. A student member of our team writes: "With our knowledge of burned skeletal remains gained by studying under Dr. Boyd, we were able to find the burned bone which had eluded the fire marshals... This discovery enabled the fire marshals to declare that the victim was indeed in the house, close the case, and bring closure to the family of the deceased. I cannot say enough about the positive learning experience gained by all of Dr. Boyd's students."
It has been my experience working in and teaching forensics for many years that all too often, there is no happy ending. For my students and me, this is a hard pill to swallow. Chronicling the life and death of more than 1,000 prehistoric, historic, and modern individuals has been my life's work as a teacher, scholar, and public servant. It has provided me with the power to transform an often depressing and unpleasant situation into something more positive. My dream as a teacher is to provide my students with the scientific knowledge and human compassion to do the same.
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